Taj Mahal

North India Road trip 1990s

The EarlybirdAdventures, Asia

I had been 5 months in India already in Goa and all over the South of India. I was getting pretty sick of India. India can wear you down after a while. It was not just the hardship of travelling, but constant bullshit, lies and scams you have to deal with on an hourly basis.

I felt it was time to move on, but I had to travel to the north to see the Taj Mahal in Agra. As the train tracks were being repaired between Goa and Bombay (now Mumbai), I decided to skip the long horrible bus rides and fly from Goa to Dehli. From there, I did a 3 week trip to Agra, Jaipur and back to Delhi.

Arriving in the north of India was like being in another country. The weather and people were much colder. The food was really horrible compared to the south, due to the backpacker industry and its tendency to produce horrible versions of western food, like burgers and pizzas. The people even looked differently – having lighter complexions and facial features.

Due to the political situation in the north, people were much less open to foreigners and there was a backlash against foreign culture. This was due to the rise at the time of the BJP, a nationalist party, which has held power in India since 2014. They were protesting against the “debauched” influence of western culture – India was just starting to open up and top India actors and models had been displayed in various states of undress on the cover of western style magazines and billboards. This had created a backlash, bringing the BJP to power in Dehli. In one of the great ironies, KFC (one of the few western fast food chains in India at the time) had been banned, due to “unsanitory conditions”!! I swear KFC was the cleanest restaurant I ate in my entire trip in India.

Needless to say, hygiene was not the best in cities of India in the 1990s. In Dehli, there didn’t seem to be a public refuse collection system in the narrow streets of the Old town. People would just throw garbage on the street. Then I realised there was a very clever and effective system for cleaning the streets – the cows! As cows are considered sacred by Hindis, cows are allowed to roam freely around the streets. They tend to eat absolutely everything including all kinds of rubbish. I sincerely hope that public services have since improved and the poor cows get to eat something more nutricious than cardboard.

The worst hygiene was at the bus stations. The toilets were absolutely disgusting. Some didn’t even have toilets and men would just piss against a wall. At one urban station, so many people were pissing against a wall that a huge puddle of piss had formed. No not a puddle. A lake. The irony was, there was writing on the wall in English, Hindi and a dozen other scripts/languages, which said: “Don’t urinate against this wall!!” At the time, the literacy rate in India was less than 50%, so it would be a fair guess that at least half of the men were oblivious!


Dehli. Photo by Laurentiu Morariu on Unsplash

It’s complicated, but Delhi is basically made up of the old town (Old Delhi) and the current capital of India (New Delhi). Old Dehli is where most of the backpacker infrastructure and tourist markets are. I got there in winter and it was quite chilly in the evenings.

Arriving in Dehli was quite scary as I accidentally got off the train at the wrong station and tried to get to my guest house by rickshaw. I only found a really old school rickshaw pulled by a guy on a bicycle, not a motorcycle. We went through some really dark and creepy neighbourhoods and I was getting worried he was going to deliver me to some gang to rob me. But we got there in the end and I rewarded the poor old dude with a generous tip.

There are plenty of tourist attractions in Dehli, the most famous of which is the Red Fort, the former residence of the Mughal emperors, constructed in the 17th century.

Scams and other dangers in Delhi

When in Delhi, I luckily managed to avoid any unpleasant incidents. But I heard of many, many stories involving robbery, severe illness and rip-offs.

For example, I met one couple who sat down in a compartment of a train and put their backpacks to their left as they looked out the window to their right. They turned around a second later to find their bags had vanished including the passports, credit cards and all their valuables! I met another couple who were severely ill from dysentry.

Then, there were the scams. Fake fires and riots. I heard the story of a group of backpackers who had split up, with one group arriving first and the other a day later. The first group arrived at Old Delhi station only to be told they couldn’t be taken to their guest house of choice due to riots/a fire in that area. They were taken instead to another guesthouse (owned by a mate of the rickshaw driver). His accomplice then sent a message to the guesthouse they were to stay at, for the friends who would arrive the next day. They duly arrived and read the note from their friends saying they had changed their plans and had taken a bus to Jaipur and to meet them there instead. So, the friends travel to Jaipur (using the bus ticket vendor of the scammers) to meet up with their friends only to find there is no-one there!

Agra and the Taj Mahal

Agra was the most horrible place I visited in India. There is the city itself and then a tourist village surrounding the nearby tourist attraction and one of the most famous and spectacular man-made constructions in the world, the Taj Mahal.

I didn’t encounter so many lies, attempted scams and rip-offs as I did in Agra. Every rickshaw driver took you somewhere other than where you wanted to go to try and see you some service from his mate to earn a commission. The guesthouses were all a rip-off and the (western) food was digusting.

Several restaurants had written on the building facade – as recommended in the lonely planet. I soon found there was an inverse relationship between quality of the food and service and the lonely planet “recommendation”.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is the most famous tourist attraction in India and one of the most iconic man-made structures in the world. I consider it to be the most beautiful building I have even seen (including all of the so-called New Seven Wonders of the World).

It was constructed entirely in marble in the 7th century by the 5th Mughal emperor as a mausoleum to house the tomb of his wife. It took 30 years to construct and is estimated to have costed around $450M in today’s money.

It is best to get there as early as possible in the morning to avoid the crowds and get the famous “Lady Diana” shot of you sitting on bench with the Taj in the background. You can also buy Bang Lassis (a yogurt drink laced with “Bang”, a type of cannabis), chill out and simply gaze at this magnificient building for hours and hours.

One of the most incredible things about the building is the facade, which is covered completely with thousands of carvings and symbols. The only down side is that rear of the building faces a very ugly and dirty river with rubbish everywhere. Such a shame.

Jaipur and Jem scams

Hawa Mahal Palace, Jaipur. Photo by Aditya Siva on Unsplash

From Agra, I took a bus to Jaipur. Jaipur is a city of around 3M people and is known as the “pink city” due to the predominance of its pink architecture. It is a major tourist destination due to the profileration of temples and forts all over the city… of which I saw absolutely none of in the few days I was there.

It is also famous for jems and jemstones and it seemed I spent my entire stay there inside jem and jewellery stores, instead of enjoying the sites of the city.

Firstly, I checked into a guesthouse and met another European traveller there, who had been living in the city for some months. She had a local boyfriend and convinced me to let me take me round on his motorbike and he would show me the sights for free, thus saving me the time and hassle of finding my own way round.

Remember, at this time, the internet did not exist – no smart phones or google maps. Getting around was significantly harder and with all the bullshit I had put up with during the trip from rickshaw drivers, it was a welcome relief to have someone who I thought was trustworthy to take me round as a favour with no ulterior motives. How wrong could I have been. Firstly, this guy told me he just had to run a couple of quicks errands and then we would be on our way. Well, this “errand” turned out to be a visit to his mate in a jem store. He went out the back and the owner invited me to a cup of tea while I waited. Oh, and by the way, would I perhaps like to check out some of the wares. I politely declined have no interest whatsoever. This went on for ages and finally I called after my “guide” to politely enquire how much longer it was going to take. I didn’t want to be rude, because I still naively assumed he was doing me a favour. He started to get slighty aggressive – hey chill out, we invite you into this man’s shop, he kindly offers you a cup of tea, and this is how you show your appreciation! This is all part of the game – by offering you a small gift (in this case a cup of tea) – you then fell obligated to reciprocate by purchasing something in the store. It’s called the law of reciprocation. After this bullshit went on for over an hour, I finally said, right I am leaving and stormed out of the store. Then the dude came running out after me to apologize and say we would be on our way shortly. This is the reaction if you walk out of the store to get you to go back into the store if they feel they are about to lose the custom. Long story short, he finally took me to some “attraction” which was completely missable and certainly not one of the attractions Jaipur is famous for.

More Jem scams

I met a nice French couple and told them about my bad experience. The insisted they had found some “nice” guides who were good honest people and had showed them round and helped them bargain at a good price in the markets. When I asked them how much they had paid for the local arts and crafts, it was clear they had been ripped off, not a great omen.

They invited me to a party with their “friends”. It was a party to celebrate the opening of a new store – you guessed it – a jewellery store! They insisted I could just go along and enjoy the party without any obligation to buy anything! Well, as soon as I got there a bunch of the hosts mobbed me and presented me with a proposition. This had “scam” written all of it, but I decided to humor them and play along pretending I was interested with no intention of actually entering into any deal with them.

Here was how the scam was to work: They import jems all over the world, but there is a limit to the amount of jems each of them can transport into a given country, so they need couriers (backpackers like me) to transport the gems. They would give me $5000 worth of gems (actually worthless glass) and I would exchange them with their representatives in the destination country for a handsome profit. I said, sounds great to me, but I insisted on not putting down any of my own money. The alarms bells starting ringing when they asked me where I was heading to after India. Well, probably the UK, I said. We have an office in the UK! Na, I might fly to Egypt first. We have an office in Egypt! But, I’m not sure – maybe back to New Zealand instead. We have an office in New Zealand, and so on.

I asked them, how will they prevent me from escaping at the airport and stealing the gems? They would their representatives waiting for my flight and would meet me at the aiport and exchange the jems for cash. They would also have a copy of my passport in case I tried to escape. Then they showed me literally dozens if not hundreds of photocopies of passports by poor schmucks who had fallen for this scam.

I said, ok, I would do it. They were so happy! Then they said, oh just sign this blank credit card form as a gaurantee. I laughed and reiterated that I was not under any circumstances going to put down any of my money. Realising that I had just been playing with them all along and that they had wasted their time, they started to get really aggressive and I left the shop.

Leaving Delhi

From Jaipur, I made it back in triangular fashion back to Delhi. The 5 or so months I had spent in India was mnd-blowing – so many sights, smells, tastes and emotions. I made some life-long friendships and still have lasting memories 30 years later. It also changed me as a personal. I was on the one hand shocked by the extreme poverty but also overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality I had received there.

But finally I was tired and run down by the tough travel conditions and constant hassle and bullshit, the inequalities of the caste system and the treatment of women as second-class citizens. I was ready to leave. As I left my guesthouse to get to the airport and fly out, I made one of the hugest travel fails ever!

In India it is common to bargain for everything. You need to play the game, but not be too tight. Many a time, I witnessed English people trying to bargain down to the last rupee (at the time worth about 5 cents). I decided to get a taxi. The cost was only $5. Then, just as I was about to get in, a rickshaw driver offered to take me for only $3! I could not resist this bargain! I thought how clever I was being able to save $2! What a mistake. It was early in the morning and still quite chilly. I did not have adequate clothing. I had no idea that the journey would take an hour! By the time we arrived, the entire left side of my body was numb and covered in ice! The lesson – don’t cut your nose to spite your face!

Photo by Julian Yu on Unsplash